Mask mandate bans in 5 states now being probed for civil rights violations

Department of Education not currently investigating Florida or Texas due to court rulings that overrode governors
By: | August 30, 2021

Five states that have prohibited school mask mandates are now being investigated for discrimination by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

The agency Monday began investigating whether statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah discriminate against students with disabilities who are at greater risk for severe COVID.

“The Department has heard from parents from across the country—particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions—about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve.”

The department “will fight to protect … the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall,” Cardona added.

The Office of Civil Rights has sent this letter to the five chief state school officers detailing how banning mask mandates prevents districts from implementing health and safety policies to block COVID transmissions.

But the office is not currently investigating states with higher-profile mask mandate bans. Court orders or other state actions have blocked prohibitions in Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona.

The investigations will explore whether the five states in question are still in compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal law that protects students from discrimination based on their disability. The office will also examine if the bans violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits disability discrimination by public entities, including public education systems.

President Joe Biden this summer directed Cardona to take any action necessary to ensure that governors and other officials are giving all students the chance to attend school in person without risking their own health or the health of their families.